Bucs' Turnovers Prove Costly In Loss
The Bucs changed head coaches, offensive schemes and training camp sites, but one old standby never wavered - Tampa Bay almost always won the turnover battle.
At least until Sunday night. Tampa Bay's four-game winning streak ended with a 23-20 setback as the Saints finished plus-2 against a club that entered the Superdome with the NFL's best turnover ratio. The Bucs had been plus-15, but Brad Johnson and Aaron Stecker each lost fumbles and Johnson was picked off once while the league's best defense generated only one turnover. ``It's ridiculous. You can't let that happen,'' Johnson said. ``This game is all about turnovers, moving the chains and making plays. Tonight we had a flurry of mistakes and that was the game.''
The Saints committed six turnovers last week in losing to Cleveland, but the Bucs couldn't register an interception against Aaron Brooks despite heavy pressure led by defensive end Simeon Rice. The Bucs lead the league with 25 picks and their 15- game streak of registering at least one interception ended while the Saints completed a season sweep. Tampa Bay was sloppy right from the start. Rookie defensive end Charles Grant stripped Johnson of the ball on the game's opening drive, but the Saints couldn't capitalize.
The next turnover came after New Orleans went ahead 13-9 early in the third quarter. Aaron Stecker fumbled the ensuing kickoff at the Tampa Bay 30, but that mistake was negated when outside linebacker Al Singleton stripped Aaron Brooks and Greg Spires pounced on a loose ball for the only New Orleans turnover. The third Tampa Bay mistake was the most costly as Jay Bellamy grabbed an errant Johnson pass early in the fourth quarter. Johnson had thrown 10 touchdown passes without a pick during a 15- quarter span before he threw the ball up for grabs on a pass intended for Keyshawn Johnson at midfield. Bellamy's 14-yard return set up a 48-yard field goal by John Carney that extended the lead to 23-12, forcing the Bucs to need two scores in the final 10 minutes.
In moving within a game of first-place Tampa Bay in the NFC South, the third-place Saints improved to 12-0 under Coach Jim Haslett when forcing at least three turnovers. New Orleans had lost three of its last four games, turning the ball over 11 times in the process, but the Saints protected the ball well Sunday. ``You can't give the Bucs anything cheap,'' Haslett said. ``You have to play mistake free.''
Despite gaining only 238 yards, the Saints thrilled a raucous Sunday night crowd. The schedule appears easy over the next month as New Orleans seeks to avoid a repeat of last year's December swoon. ``Our goal was to execute, play with our heart and soul and play as a team,'' Haslett said. ``The Bucs are a very good football team. Offense, defense, special teams, they have a heck of a club over there.''
The Bucs are 7-0 this season with a positive turnover ratio and 1-3 with a negative differential. As they did in winning the season opener 26-20 in overtime, New Orleans also hurt the Bucs on third down, converting 9 of 17 while Tampa Bay was successful on only 2 of 14 attempts.